Travel reality versus your dream
When your wish is to end up sharing an apartment with Audrey Tautou, you're doomed to disappointment from the start.
But that's what I had in mind. Go to Spain, probably Barcelona, find a flat to share, then settle into the good life with the French actress and a bunch of her youthful, attractive, multicultural European friends.
Instead, however, I wound up in a Seville apartment with Luis and his partner Bruno, two middle-age guys with a passion for slippers and poorly dubbed American cop shows.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to Audrey.
My wish for a Spanish apartment all started with a film: The Spanish Apartment. It's French-made, it stars Audrey Tautou and it probably passed by most of the English-speaking world with the smallest flutter of interest. For me, however, it stuck.
The film is the story of a French student who moves to Barcelona for a year to learn Spanish. He winds up sharing a flat with fellow students from throughout western Europe, one of whom is played by Tautou.
For a travelling dreamer like me, it was inspirational - I always wanted The Spanish Apartment experience, that feeling of being thrown together with people from all over the world in an exciting new city.
Last year, I decided to do it. I'd get my Spanish apartment. I'd learn the language; I'd meet the people; I'd make the dream come true.
But life doesn't usually imitate art.
To begin with, Barcelona was too expensive. You can do a language course for about half the price, I found out, if you head south to Seville. It's not as exciting to announce on Facebook, but studying in Seville instead of Barcelona makes sense.
Unlike the main character in The Spanish Apartment, I also didn't have an entire year to dedicate to my mastery of another language. With work and travel commitments, I ended up with a window of a month in which to make amazing lifelong friends and become bilingual.
Audrey Tautou never did materialise. I booked shared accommodation through my Spanish school, expecting I'd be thrown into a flat with a bunch of fellow students.
For some reason, however, my housing was upgraded to "home stay" and on my first day I was handed the address of a top-floor apartment in the middle of the old town.
Walking up to the door that day, I had no idea what to expect. A bunch of kids running around? A young couple? I knocked on the door and Bruno answered, his hair wild with sleep, a velvet dressing gown wrapped around him, those slippers on his feet. "Ben? Come in please ..."
The apartment was no dingy student flat - it was beautiful. The artworks Luis had inherited from three or four generations of his family were strewn across every inch of wall space, from huge old fine-art pieces to Miro-style splashes of colour. My bedroom was dedicated to bull-fighting memorabilia, including a huge portrait of an old matador signed by the man himself.
"Well," Bruno said, "it's your first night in Sevilla, so you should probably go out for dinner. I can tell you some nice places to go."
OK, I thought, this isn't going to be my Spanish Apartment experience. This is going to be a nice, comfortable place to stay with friendly, middle-age hosts.
And it was. No Audrey and no big parties - but sometimes you can get unrealistic expectations of these things.
Some of my friends from the language school, however, had the Spanish Apartment experience. They had that shared flat with the young people from around the world that I'd been picturing. And you know what? It wasn't very nice.
It was a mouldy old place where there seemed to be constant battles over whose turn it was to do the washing up and who had or hadn't bought toilet paper recently. It was multicultural - there were Swedes in there, a Dutch girl, an Austrian, an American, an Australian - but the language of choice was always English.
A few very short romances were consummated in that flat, and cultural exchanges took place in the form of drinking games. Friendships were made but had to be broken quickly when our month in Seville came to an end.
I'm not in contact with Luis and Bruno any more, because we never really had much in common. And I don't know that they appreciated my pathetic attempts at speaking their language.
I still talk to some of the students from the other apartment, though. I made some proper friends in that short amount of time, even though we didn't live under the same roof - and that, come to think of it, was exactly the intention all those years ago when I was inspired by a film to move my life to Spain for a while.
It's just a pity I never found Audrey Tautou.
Have you ever been inspired by a work of fiction to pursue a particular travel experience? How the reality match up to the fantasy? Post a comment below.
Sydney Morning Herald